23 April 2009

The History Boys

I watched 'The History Boys' and whilst waiting for Dead Close to Nature 3 to be completed thought I’d better comment. It’s a film from a play by Alan Bennett about some post-A’ Level students cramming for Oxbridge and the three teachers who coach them. Richard Griffiths (very hard not to see shades of Uncle Monty) is brilliant and flawed as the from-the-heart old-fashioned master who fondles the boys’ balls on the ‘lift home’ on the back of his motorbike. He encourages the boys to think for themselves, challenge the truth, sing old songs, re-enact classic films and dissect the throbbing, romantic heart of learning. The more cerebral and antagonistic young teacher encourages them to craft snide but brilliant treatises on history with the emphasis on challenging norms and manipulating the politics of academia. Frances de la Tour is the ballsy lady teacher who keeps it all together and emanates solid, motherly and eccentric power.

Eccentricity is Bennett’s calling card, and the quirkiness is delightful, witty and weird. However, the underlying acceptance of ball-fondling and its very theatrical treatment of young school boys is pretty shameless. The gay relations are all tortured and the teachers, both homosexual, struggle with their sexy feelings for the boys. The one gay student is in love with the school hunk. There are several hunky boys in the film, and they all exist with a jolly ribaldry that is unrealistic but pleasingly idealistic – ‘if only all school boys were so enlightened’ is the message here, but they are not. The romance was heart-warming and coy, but I’d rather see a realistic treatment of adults vs. children – especially in a school environment. Griffiths is taking advantage of the boys, which is clearly not damaging for them within the pretty scope of the film. But the teachers are damaged humans who make bad choices and do not respect their responsibility for the boys social and sexual education. Thus homosexuality is something they must brush under the carpet (they could just not perve over school boys and go to the local gay bar) and the only homosexual child character perpetuates the ‘sins’ of his gay role-models. Let's bring it back to the law of the jungle.

Hot stuff, savannah life. Takes
your head off sometimes.

(head off, blown slow-mo off
with a smoking rifle – its bang-

bang a bathetic
sunny mini-boom muffled and

murmuring in its sleep).
Rules of the herd: keep your

horns to yourself and if you’re
lucky you’ll get a shag followed

by grass and a dust bath. Nice.
However, some antelopes

have morbid tendencies: “Going
to wet my whistle, Bob” one brays

before heading to the waterhole
and face to face with old-

school retribution. Tonight,
Graham (not his real name)

you will meet your pretty bloody
destiny in the gob of a croc.

I’m just tearing some leaves
off a low bush, thinking

of beetles and grass and the
whispering of the grass with

all the beetles beetling, when
a spasmodic blush spreads

down the inside of my hind leg
and along my long back

muddling the thought somewhat.
I get a hard-on about my

best friend, a shiny-coated
buck with an excellent record in

surviving where the waterhole is
concerned and

also knows the best grass, beetles etc
– cool.

I’m following in a long line of repressed
Beta-antelopes who get kinky

down time grazing it up
with the macho, grazing it

up before they make their
way to separate spots in the

shade. I am the gay antelope who
muzzles up to his pal, horny,

mounts on his back for a
second with a lustful glint, before
sliding off,

ambling away grunting, head
down to grass with that oryx look in my eye.
Antelope - AFG

Bennett seems to imply that even in this idealistic school scenario he has created, repression must exist. His romance is tainted by a foolish subscription to social stereotypes that he so stylishly avoids when speaking of learning itself, with the marvellous classes and the boys deep desire to learn, improve, flourish. But this education is stunted by Bennett’s acceptance of ball-fondling.

The young teacher who falls for top dog Dakin is better – he is drawn in to Dakin’s flirting but as he realises that he could be barking up the wrong tree and immediately withdraws, realising what he imagines is not really what is happening. But later he organises a blowjob date with the boy when school is finished. Pretty horny stuff but fizzles out at the end and never happens. Surely his duty was to say – “well, there is nothing wrong with boys giving each other blowjobs – in fact, it’s the shit – but we aren’t going to do it as I am your teacher and you are my student”, and then in the words of Erykah Badu, “see you next lifetime”. And perhaps a bit of sexual education, a pat on the shoulder and home to your perfectly functional relationship or your dog or your life – which is separate from forming the mind of the young.
Maybe I sound like a reactionary bore but there is a line.

The sexual politics are ultimately quite poignant; that homosexual and straight men usually experience some kind of frisson, sometimes it is acted upon and sometimes not. Young men are brimming with hormones, and are ambiguous. Bennett makes them erudite but rather than honest they are rather too adult. It is only frustrating afterwards as during the film you are entertained enough for it not to matter.

The gay boy is shy and retiring and hopelessly romantic. His idol is sexually active, the coolest boy and effortlessly confident. Here the case is of a shy person falling in love with confidence, physical and social brilliance, which I find a key feature of gay-straight obsessions. Gay men are always going to have flirtations, even sexual experiences with straight men. Indeed married men love it. However, just as women are rejected by men and gay men reject women – so gay men in turn are rejected by straight men. It’s life, Jim. So I don’t think that we can excuse the paedophilia-lite that is expressed in Richard Griffiths and Stephen Campbell Moore mooning around after teenagers. But the keening desire? Well, that still exists.
And I guess that the tightness in the throat
and the tiny cascading sensation
somewhere inside us are both part of that
sense of something else. That feeling, I mean.
From It Aint What You Do It’s What It Does To You – Simon Armitage

Being quite unaware, I mean dead-
asleep to it, I didn’t keep to it that
promise I made you when it was all
moony out and my heart was racing.
I couldn’t have meant it, that
moony night you were bracing your
feet either side of my head as I lay
back against a rock facing you and
you were up for it, out on the moor
with no-one around to see it. That was
a dark night, that night you had
read that your bones would crumble
the same as mine and it made you
hurt just to wait for it. Like the man
said, fate’s at work out here and
anyway I want to jump your bones, lucky
there’s no-one around to see it.
I make myself dead-asleep to it, eyes
shutting out stars and you getting up
and dancing to it and pulling me up and
you don’t swing me round like I’d
hoped but hold me tight, like you need it,
which is better but I ease my way out,
smiling. We were nearly there. Not
the sound of tomorrow, the sound of
the morning that hawks up the garbled
throat and the two-ring warning of an
alarm calling us back to the city,
we are suckers for that, you and I.
We’re dead-asleep to it, put it away in
a minute and we’ll sleep on it, I’ll
sleep on it and fuck tomorrow, I promise.

Shut up and Dance - AFG


  1. Anonymous2:45 pm

    Brilliant review. I hope you don't mind but i have quoted and referenced you in my A level work. Thank you

  2. Not a problem my friend. Would love to hear more about your A' Level work. Glad I could be of assistance.